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Photograph by Eric Millette
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How Arati Prabhakar Aims to Transform Our Innovation Ecosystem

Photograph by Eric Millette

Former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director and Caltech Distinguished Alumna Arati Prabhakar (MS ’80, PhD ’85) is ready to take on the biggest research and development challenge of her career: reinventing innovation. Rapidly advancing technology gives us the capacity to solve some of the greatest societal challenges facing the United States in the 21st century, she says, but only if we can quickly build a new innovation ecosystem as robust as the one we built for yesterday’s problems.

“We’re seeing a turning point, a broad societal understanding that we have to act with urgency,” Prabhakar says. And she’s already gotten started. In 2019, Prabhakar founded the nonprofit Actuate, an experiment in building a new model for developing breakthrough technologies she describes as a “DARPA for society.”

We asked Prabhakar to talk about what that model looks like, and the brighter future it could offer.

Prabhakar speaks during DARPA Demo Day at the Pentagon in 2016.

© US Defense via ZUMA Press

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What shaped our current innovation ecosystem?

The pivot point in research and development in the United States was World War II, when we discovered how to harness all the pieces of our innovation ecosystem—ivory-tower researchers, companies, and governmental resources—to solve hard problems that were critical in turning the course of the war. It’s no accident that the things we are still very good at innovating for are information technology, national security, biomedicine, and the foundations of basic research. But now it is 75 years later, and it’s time to think about the challenges of the next era.

What are those challenges?

Improving access to economic opportunity, lowering the exorbitant cost of health care, ensuring trustworthy data and information, and addressing climate change. We haven’t built effective innovation capacities in these areas because they haven’t been a priority to this point. The information age has opened up opportunities for us to understand and influence deeply complex systems. Using the data revolution and reasoning about causality to understand social systems is a particularly tantalizing prospect.

Are the country’s innovators prepared to address these challenges?

Since I left DARPA, this is what’s been on my mind. We need a generational shift in how we think about research and development, and that’s not going to happen overnight. There are already very interesting solutions emerging from research that can make a real impact. But how do you tie those pieces together and accelerate this generational shift? I think the shift will emerge naturally, but it would be nice if it emerged in 20 years instead of 50 years.

What are the potential drawbacks to turning to technology to solve societal issues?

Technology is a raw power; that’s true of nuclear technology and it’s true of the internet. And history shows us that every power can be used for good and for evil. I do think that, over time, as societies deliberate about these new technologies, they lift us up, in aggregate. That’s why we—as scientists, engineers, and technologists—do what we do. We have the great privilege to work on technological advances that will lift humanity. But that doesn’t happen smoothly or easily or automatically. Part of our responsibility is to contribute to wise choices about technology.

Senator Tim Kaine talks with Prabhakar, then director of DARPA, as part of a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities hearing in April 2016.

Photograph by Marine Corps Sgt. Drew Tech

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It’s no accident that the things we are still very good at innovating for are information technology, national security, biomedicine, and the foundations of basic research.

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Arati Prabhakar (MS ’80, PhD ’85)

What role do you hope your new venture, Actuate Innovation, will play in this evolving innovation ecosystem?

We are an organization that raises funds, primarily philanthropic, and uses those funds to design and execute research programs with two focuses. First, we run research initiatives that can demonstrate potentially powerful solutions to societal problems. And second, in doing that work, we have an opportunity to model what the process of innovation can look like, because it’s not going to look like the last century of research and development.

If you said the word “research” to someone in 1945, they pictured a scientist in a lab coat with a beaker full of chemicals. But today’s research is more than that. One of our initial programs will use research from cryptography, math, and computer science to create a new open-source platform for managing data in a way that allows researchers to link and use powerful data sets while protecting privacy. It’s so exciting. Think about how much better we could be at delivering health solutions, at educating our kids, at designing public policies to address everything from homelessness to the criminal justice system. The list is endless if we can harness what the data can tell us.

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Why do you think philanthropy has a bigger role to play in the next era of research and development?

There’s an opportunity here for philanthropy to swing for the fences. I hope we can invoke an appetite in the philanthropic community for tackling societal challenges by supporting high-risk/high-payoff projects. The kind of research we want to do is not going to be the stuff you can raise private capital for. It is going to be too risky, without visible markets. But if we’re successful, these philanthropic investments will create opportunities for governmental and commercial innovation. Philanthropy is a very important first step in this generational shift in R&D. It can fundamentally enable bigger, better solutions to our problems.

Read more in our 2013 interview with Prabhakar.

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